When Complexions Contemporary Ballet's summer intensive program director Meg Paul auditions students for its Detroit intensive, there's one thing that catches her eye for all the wrong reasons. "It's a real pet peeve of mine when a dancer keeps shifting her eyes to me during a phrase," she says. "It tells me that she's not fully invested in the movement, that she's more interested in being watched than in embodying the choreography."
Growing up in Michigan, Jessy Dick was used to her daily hour-long drives to the Grand Rapids Ballet School, where she trained. But when she started to think about summer intensives, a new problem emerged: Auditions for the schools she was interested in were even farther away, in Chicago or Detroit. "I learned early on that if I wanted to do any summer programs, I'd have to travel at least three hours in order to audition," says Dick, now a member of The Washington Ballet's Studio Company.
Making plans for your summer training is complicated enough, especially with the sheer number of programs to choose between. But students who live far from popular audition hubs face the additional hurdle of organizing, scheduling and budgeting for audition trips. Luckily, with strategic planning, what can feel overwhelming at first can become a rewarding experience.
Just as all the Nutcracker madness comes to an end, summer intensive audition season begins. Whether you're looking to spend your first summer away from home or hoping to get your foot in the door at your dream company, auditioning can be a daunting process. To help you manage this anxious time of year, we've mined the Pointe archives for our best tips on the audition process—everything from researching schools to battling audition day jitters to paying for the program itself.
1. Start by researching schools. Our 2018 Summer Intensive Guide features 100s of programs and is a great place to start. Search for schools by state or country, and find information on tuition, housing and classes all in one place.
2. Develop a strategy. Think about your goals. What do you hope to achieve this year? Doing so can help you figure out which auditions to prioritize.
- Are you hoping to branch out and learn a new style?
- Are you looking for year-round training or professional opportunities?
- Or, perhaps you're interested in checking out a college dance program?
3. Quell your audition anxiety. If you feel paranoid that the teachers leading the audition will write you off, you're most likely overreacting. Making mistakes, having to ask a question, or not catching the director's eye does not necessarily mean you're going to be rejected. Nevertheless, auditioning is hard. These strategies, such as preparing the night before or treating the audition as a master class, can help you keep your jitters at bay.
As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.
I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.
The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member Corey Bourbonniere got a late start in ballet, so he knew he needed to commit himself completely to the art to catch up. But at 16, when a neglected hamstring injury progressed into a hip injury just in time for summer intensive auditions, it felt as though the dream might pass him by.
It seems completely unfair. An injury sustained in January can prevent your acceptance into a program that doesn't start until June. Often it feels like the stakes couldn't be higher: There are only a few summers in your life as a ballet student and missing one can seem catastrophic for your future. But an injury during audition season doesn't mean you'll necessarily spend the summer sitting around. You may need to adjust your expectations, but there are ways to navigate the audition process to ensure that you still get the most out of your training this summer.
Boston Ballet's summer intensive
Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet
If you are injured when a can't-miss audition comes to town, it may still be worthwhile to take the class, but you have to speak up. Margaret Tracey, director of the Boston Ballet School, says that if she has a student who is nursing an injury, like shin splints, but can take partial class, she would still encourage them to do the audition. "But only once they have spoken to the adjudicators and they've cleared it with them," she adds. Bourbonniere did just that when Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's intensive audition came late in the cycle. He still felt a little unstable on his standing leg and his turnout was weak, but he told the teacher at the audition and was told to give it a try anyway. In this instance Tracey would make a note on the student's registration form and be able to frame her evaluation of that student with the knowledge of their limitations.
Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power notes that often the adjudicator will be the same person taking your registration, but in some cases they won't be. Politely ask the person at registration whom you should speak to about your injury. The registrar might say she'll let the teacher know. "But if that were me, I would probably do another little follow-up with the teacher before class," says Power. Be clear about your limitations whether that means that you need to skip jumps or pointework, or if, like Bourbonniere, you simply want them to be aware that you can dance the whole class but won't be at 100 percent. "You may get different reactions, but you should never read into it," Power adds. Audition tours require the adjudicators to travel a lot and work odd hours. The teacher's plane may have been late or they may have had to skip lunch, but a terse response likely has nothing to do with your approaching them.
Power points out that a good benchmark for whether or not the adjudicator needs to be informed of your injury is by asking yourself if you can do what will be expected of you in the audition. If the answer is no, for any reason—a turned ankle, an infected ingrown toenail, the flu—you should speak up.
Admitting that you are injured does not mean that you won't be accepted to the program. At Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, director Dennis Marshall has had students go through the audition process with an injury, and he always respects them for telling him. "If I see the facility I can look beyond the fact that they can't do the whole audition," he says. "Barre says it all to me."
Find a Solution
Be realistic about your limitations. You certainly don't want to blow an opportunity to impress the faculty at your dream school because you weren't fit to be in the audition, or worse, injure yourself further in the process. For instance, Bourbonniere had to pass up auditions for Boston Ballet, Joffrey and American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives before he felt ready. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to make sure you're not underestimating the severity of your injury.
Tracey advises her students to do their homework and figure out which programs have alternative admissions processes, such as submitting photographs and a recommendation. "Remember that there are fine training schools out there that don't require a formal audition," she says. "Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet is a phenomenal summer program, and you don't have to attend an audition to be admitted."
Auditioning with a video can be another option. Tracey points out that many schools accept video submissions as late as March if there are still places available in the program. A video may also provide the follow-up needed if you weren't able to participate in the audition fully, such as not dancing on pointe. Power says that you can bring the video, along with a doctor's note, with you to the audition if you already have one, or mail it a few weeks later when you're healed up. Be sure to include a professionally worded letter thanking them for taking the time to review it and clearly state when and where you auditioned.
Don't be afraid to call the program and ask how they would recommend you handle the situation. "Sometimes a school may be able to see that student in one of their regularly scheduled classes," says Tracey. "Seek an alternative and then accept the answer if it's no."
Focus on the Future
Houston Ballet Academy Summer Intensive boys class
Cameron Durham, Courtesy Houston Ballet
While audition season can feel like the most crucial do or die scenario, ignoring an injury is more likely to end your dancing life than missing one summer at your dream program. "If you're injured, deal with the injury," says Marshall, "because it's not about the next nine months. It's about the next nine years." Proceed with your audition process in a way that honors your body and the injury you have sustained.
Ask yourself honestly: Will you be recovered in time to attend the program and get the most out of it? Being at a summer intensive when you aren't able to perform at your best can be a deflating experience. Power has seen students with injuries come through Houston's program and struggle in such a competitive environment. "They are spending more time outside of the classroom and they can't do what is expected of them," she says. "Psychologically, they really can't manage."
If you'll still be recovering in the summer months, Power advises that your home studio may be the safest place to finish that process. "We get students from all over and we don't know them, so we don't know how much to push them," she says. Your teachers at home will be able to challenge you with a realistic understanding of what you're limitations are.
Dealing with an injury during the summer intensive audition season may be one of the greatest lessons you can learn; you'll likely confront injury in your professional career. But it's important to keep in mind that "one audition season is not going to make or break your future," says Tracey. Case in point: Bourbonniere was accepted to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's summer intensive on full scholarship, followed by an invitation to join the year-round program, and eventually the company.
This story originally appeared in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Pointe.
When Pacific Northwest Ballet School student Madison Abeo was accepted into San Francisco Ballet School's summer session on a partial scholarship, she was thrilled. But then she added up the remaining cost for the program and realized she didn't have the funds. “I really wanted to go," she says, “but we just couldn't make the other half of it work."
Ballet training is expensive. For many families, a trip to a dream summer intensive simply isn't in the budget. SFB was $2,500 out of Abeo's reach. But she was determined. At the suggestion of her aunt, Abeo created a Facebook fan page where she asked for opportunities to babysit or perform odd jobs, and included a link to a PayPal account where friends and family could make donations. Two local dancewear businesses, Vala Dancewear and Class Act Tutu, offered to outfit her for fundraising photos, which a photographer took for her Facebook page for free. By June, Abeo had raised enough for tuition—plus plenty of pointe shoes.
Affording your dream intensive isn't as difficult as you might think. There are a surprising number of eager dance supporters out there. Case in point: On Kickstarter, dance projects have the highest success rate of any type of campaign, with dancers receiving over $4 million in donations through the site since it began. You can also apply for need- or merit-based grants and scholarships, either through your summer program or an outside foundation. Most dancers who want it badly enough can make it happen.
Madison Abeo with other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in the 2013 School Performance of an excerpt from "Serenade," choreography by George Balanchine. Photo by Rex Tranter, Courtesy Abeo.
Take Your Cause to the (Online) Streets
This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.
As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.
I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.
My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.